Tag team wrestling has always been subject to whim and chance. Look no further than current SmackDown division champs the New Day, a trio that spent months shrugging off its initial, ill-received babyface pose. Or for that matter, heed their Monday-night counterparts: Raw standard-bearers Sheamus and Cesaro, who weathered tenuous storylines as foes and then reluctant frenemies before finding themselves (sort of) as a duo. Still, one might wonder how Kofi Kingston and co. can keep a stranglehold on the titles while upstart partnerships like American Alpha – who did at least briefly possess the belts – abruptly disband. Or why Enzo and Cass’s red-hot run came to an anticlimactic stop without them tasting gold.
Dating back to WWE and ex-Vaudevillain Simon Gotch’s “mutually agreed upon” departure in April – and thus the immediate dissolution of he and Aiden English’s old-timey tandem – several pairings have either parted ways or are drifting apart. Aside from the aforementioned splits, there was also Goldust and R-Truth’s acrimonious end, coming barely a year after Golden Truth’s official debut; The Hype Bros’ simmering tension since Zack Ryder returned from injury; and reports that Rhino’s through rubbing off on Heath Slater as the two increasingly compete in singles matches. Given the lack of emphasis on tag-team competition among the female and cruiserweight ranks, that represents a fairly radical thinning out of an already underrepresented class. The question is whether all these seemingly successive secessions are unique and case-by-case, or rather a microcosm of main-roster volatility amid what’s ostensibly a three-brand era.
“There’s a part of me that does feel like the tension between NXT, Raw and SmackDown is playing out in real time with the dissolution of all these tag teams,” acknowledges David Shoemaker, wrestling columnist for The Ringer and author of The Squared Circle: Life, Death, and Professional Wrestling. But he’s just as quick to point out that, “Since the earliest days of WWF, it feels like a parlay bet: We’re gonna bring in two guys, and one of them may pan out as a singles wrestler some day. It always looks, in retrospect, like tag-team wrestling is a secondary concern.”
A tour through the WWE Network archives bears that out. WrestleMania‘s original main event notwithstanding, PPVs have typically been headlined by either one-on-one affairs or, especially of late, frenzied triple threats and four-way gauntlets for a singles prize. While every generation has witnessed card-topping twin killers – whether it’s the Hart Foundation, Hardy Boyz, New Age Outlaws or Team Hell No – by and large, tag teams have functioned as setup men for whatever monolithic monster or superhero commands the marquee.
“It’s sad because not only does tag-team wrestling have a vibrant tradition that we still see in indie [promotions],” Shoemaker laments. “But it also gives you the opportunities to tell stories you can’t tell otherwise.”
Unfortunately, with so many performers vying to get on TV, advertising to air and sometimes twice-monthly PPV buys to build anticipation around, time isn’t exactly on anyone’s side, and the onus is on each team to stake its claim. Take Breezango, an arguable Hail Mary heave to marry floundering pretty faces Tyler Breeze and Fandango into one flamboyant whole. Over a 12-month span, they endured playing foil to Golden Truth, thankless battle royal entries and dark-match doldrums before making a splash with silly parody vignettes playing up their Zoolander-lite appeal. Not long after, they’re competing for the championships and carving out enough time on SmackDown to generate comic relief and remind audiences of their five-tool athleticism.
“When I first saw [Breezango], it looked like the two-male-stripper gimmick,” says Bill Apter, former Pro Wrestling Illustrated editor and current industry author and 1Wrestling.com operator. “Now the creative team has started doing these skits that have caught on.”
Shoemaker agrees, elaborating that Breezango have “benefitted from working in the shadows for a long time,” and that “it only worked in a certain sense because they were so low on the totem pole.”
Like Shoemaker, Apter opines about this being a potential period of experimentation, likening it to the fluidity of personnel between Raw and SmackDown since last year’s brand split. “I think, just like they did their shakeup, this is the tag-team division’s own version of a shakeup,” he says. By way of a steadying influence, he recommends an equivalent to the women’s division’s Mae Young Classic, perhaps “The Legion of Doom Memorial Tag-Team Tournament.”
Or, they could simply keep placing parlays and seeing what sticks. Ex-Vaudevillain Gotch, now wrestling on the indie and international circuits as Simon Grimm (real name: Seth Lesser), isn’t shy about sharing his recent experience about WWE stratagem. “While it looks like something insidious happening with the tag teams, it really is as simple as, say, ‘Chad Gable will do fine on his own,'” he explains. “Jason Jordan, same thing. He doesn’t need to be in a tag team. If you have two people who are marketable in a tag team, then you’re going to make more money by splitting them and marketing them as individuals than by trying to market the team itself. It seems base, but in a lot of cases, it’s a side effect of WWE being a publicly traded company.”
So for those lamenting Enzo and Cass’s hastened separation, Grimm’s advice would be to take the emotion out of it, no easy ask of such a passionate fanbase. “They look at it and go, ‘Big Cass, he’s a guy who’s 6-foot-8, 300 pounds, we can probably get more out of him than using him as the hot tag for every Enzo Amore match,'” Gotch says of WWE decision-makers. “And if they have confidence in Enzo’s ability to talk, they can put him out there by himself and he’ll still be just as popular. Fans may say, ‘Oh, we like them as a team.’ Well, so what?”
Plus, the constant changes are more of a merry-go-round than revolving door. Besides Grimm, all the men mentioned in this story have been reasonably resettled on Monday and Tuesday nights, be it Goldust returning to vintage form via standout heel promos or Mojo Rawley revealing that he’s more than just a human Mountain Dew “Extreme” ad. At the same juncture, fresh blood like NXT call-ups The Revival are presented with an opening that would otherwise be unavailable, and are officially on the clock to prove they belong alongside Gallows and Anderson, the Usos and a handful of bedrock teams.
Though anyone still inconsolable over Enzo and Cass coming undone should bear in mind that worthy tag-team arcs tend to come full circle toward reconciliation, especially when the fans demand it. And from Apter’s point of view, he’s gathered all the empirical evidence necessary to ensure a reunion.
“One thing I judge by is the camp and school bus line in the morning before I go to work,” Apter says. “I talk wrestling with them. A lot of the kids think Breezango is funny and cool. With American Alpha, their reaction was, ‘They’re good wrestlers.’ With Cass and Enzo, they’re upset. They’re angry. They liked what they were.”